The following is not something I am able to take much credit for (though I remain entirely responsible for its formulation). In feeling the call to pastoral ministry I need to already be thinking about healthy ministry in a local church. In particular, I wrestle with the tension of being faithful to my confessional theology (in this case, the Reformed tradition) and the need to communicate such a theology to a demographic so as to see true transformation of lives for the kingdom. Faithfulness in content, fervor for people, fruit in ministry.
In taking a cue from John Frame’s triperspectivalism, I do not necessarily advocate multiperspectivalism as a philosophical or theological system, but I have found Frame’s categories extremely helpful when broaching any topic or subject. Thus, I present some flawed thoughts on healthy, relevant ministry.
Ministry in the local church may be viewed from the overlapping perspectives of normative, situational, and existential. Used frequently in ethical, epistemological, and theological studies, these three perspectives also seem applicable to real ministry in God’s world. The normative perspective in ministry is content. In every case, the content should be the holy Scriptures (sola scriptura). In my own case, I hold to the Reformed tradition of exegeting Scripture as summarized in the Westminster Standards, the Belgic Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism. The situational perspective is the context of one’s ministry. Every church is in a specific cultural context with a demographic that must consider ethnicity, language, climate, education, income, the arts, etc. If culture is “religion externalized” (Henry Van Til) then the location of our ministry must take into account the values, beliefs, and practices that surround the church. The existential perspective takes our fixed content with our peculiar context, and should provide the faithful contextualization required for fruitful ministry. The content and context of ministry, properly evaluated, should produce faithful contextualization.
The balance of this model is self-evident. We don’t feel the tension of choosing between faithfulness to Scripture and relevance. Rather, the normative perspective communicates a fixed theology that doesn’t change (and if it does change, it is only by the authorization of Scripture, which itself can never change). The situational perspective is, in a sense, constantly changing. Though in the big picture one may stick with a philosophy of ministry for a period of 3-5 years.
This is not a matter of contextualization versus non-contextualization. Rather, contextualization necessarily emanates from our content and context. So striving for faithful contextualization should affirm our fixed theology while also acknowledging a flexible methodology.
Perhaps some evangelical churches purposely choose not to consider their content and context and are stuck with an imbalance of over-contextualization (focusing only on context) or under-contextualization (focusing only on content). A balanced philosophy of ministry will do justice to all the perspectives, which overlap with one another, and cannot be truly applied without the other since each imply the other two.
These are flawed thoughts, from a flawed student, who will someday be a flawed pastor (Lord willing). While I may lead a flawed ministry, perhaps less damage will be done in thinking and applying the model stated above.
Great article, and since you asked for feedback, I’ll give it.
I would not be so quick to separate ethical, epistemological and theological studies from ‘real ministry;’ Frame would be quick to point out that that he defines theology as application: until we can take the theology that we learn and apply it to our lives (or to the lives of those we minister to), we don’t know it. Also, we run into ethical dilemmas every day of our lives; and epistemology is important as well because we need to be aware of how people know something and what it means to know something (ideas of certainty and such).
Frame would also be quick to point out that none of the corners of the triangle can be wholly separated from the others. Our experiences in our tradition shape our view of the normative as well as the situational; our experiences today can change how we view either of the other two corners as well. Richard Pratt taught (and I highly doubt that Frame would disagree) that it took a centering force to keep the three corners of the triangle in balance throughout the shifting sands of life: the Holy Spirit. Without His ministry in our lives as ministers, we can get way off base in any of those perspectives and wrongfully call ourselves orthodox.
Effective ministry, even though flawed, will come through a balanced approach to the perspectives that is guided by the Holy Spirit.
Thanks for making me think through the perspectives again.
Daniel Wells said:
Good to hear from you Ike. Hope West Virginia is treating you well.
I didn’t talk about Frame’s definition of theology, which would certainly be worthy to write a sentence or two about in this post. Thanks for pointing that out. I certainly believe Frame is right.
The interconnectedness of all three perspectives also needs to be pointed out. I somewhat do that in my post, but perhaps that wasn’t clear. It is indeed true that we can’t fully explicate the normative perspective (and be faithful in that) without doing the same to the situational and existential.
And obviously, the Holy Spirit needs to be central. 🙂 So basic, one usually forgets such a point.
Blessings to you, your family, and ministry, Ike!